What is an Internet Shutdown?
Module 3: Access to the Internet
An internet shutdown may be defined as an intentional disruption of internet or electronic communications, rendering them inaccessible or effectively unusable, for a specific population or within a location, often to exert control over the flow of information.(1) In other words, this arises when someone, be it the government or a private sector actor, intentionally disrupts the internet, a telecommunications network or an internet service, arguably to control or curb what people say or do.(2) This is sometimes also referred to as a ‘kill switch’.
In some instances, this may entail there being a total network outage, whereby access to the internet is shutdown in its entirety. In others, it may be access to mobile communications, websites, or social media and messaging applications that is blocked, throttled, or rendered effectively unusable.(3) Shutdowns may affect an entire country, towns or regions within a country, or even multiple countries, and have been seen to range from several hours to several months.(4)
It should be noted that in order to conduct shutdowns governments typically require the action of private actors that operate networks or facilitate network traffic.(5) As noted by the United Nations Special Rapporteur (UNSR) on freedom of expression, large-scale attacks on network infrastructure committed by private parties, such as distributed denial-of-service (known as ‘DDoS’) attacks, may also have shutdown effects.
ECOWAS Court finds internet shutdown illegal
In a landmark case confirming that internet shutdowns constitute a form of prior restraint, in June 2020, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Community Court of Justice ruled that the internet shutdowns implemented by the Togolese government in 2017 were illegal.(6) In the judgment, Amnesty International Togo v the Togolese Republic, the court held that access to the internet is a “derivative right” as it “enhances the exercise of freedom of expression” and as such is “a right that requires protection of the law.”(7)
In a similar case in 2022 relating to the blocking of specific content, rather than a wholesale internet shutdown, the ECOWAS Court considered the government of Nigeria’s banning of social media platform Twitter, underscoring that modern technology has enabled the exchanges of ideas, views, and opinions and thus furthers freedom of expression, and held that access to Twitter is a “derivative right” that is “complementary to the enjoyment of the right to freedom of expression.(8)
For further information on internet shutdowns, see Module 2: Restricting Access and Content of Media Defence’s Advanced Modules on Digital Rights and Freedom of Expression Online.